‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Not to be Missed!

i am not your ego sign front

On Sunday, September 24, I was privileged to attend ACMI for a screening of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro and the Q & A session afterwards, which featured former Kansas State Senator Donald Betts Jr and American history professor Michael Ondaatje.

A big thank you to my daughter MaryJane for buying the tickets online when the sessions were announced because tickets sold out very quickly!

The guests discussed race politics and resistance from the civil rights era to present day America and with questions from the audience, this included politics of race in Australia and our inglorious colonial past.

i am not your negro sign back

I’m not surprised the screenings were sold out at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival, or the doco was nominated for an Academy Award – it has already won several gongs at various film festivals.

Director Raoul Peck took ten years to make this and his meticulous research, editing and execution are obvious and flawless – also gut-wrenching.

The raw footage of civil rights demonstrations, lynchings, and the aftermath of murders will have you shaking your head in horror, disgust, and disbelief – yet many in the theatre, including myself, lived through what we saw on screen.

I’ve seen other documentaries and movies, braced myself for scenes Selma showcased, and yet I wasn’t prepared for the naked violence, still felt emotionally drained and traumatised that racism and all its ugliness is so endemic – and then came the anger and despair about lack of progress, or progressing too slowly for me to see change in my lifetime.

Thank goodness that alongside the screenings, ACMI will present ‘a series of thought-provoking events discussing race relations, resistance and identity in modern Australia’.

As Baldwin said, “History is not past but present.”

In the light of debates over the date of Australia Day, acknowledging the truth of colonial settlement, the horrific recent deaths of Aboriginal people (Elijah Doughty and Ms Dhu recent atrocities), high-profile cases and deaths in custody of indigenous Australians, and the entrenched inequity of our justice system, this country has many conversations and corrections long overdue!

The Black Rights Matter Movement resonates here.

People hold up banners at a Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney on July 16, 2016.Peter Parks / Getty Images         https://www.buzzfeed.com/susiearmitage/2016-was-the-year-black-lives-matter-went-global?utm_term=.bkdRGwN8KL#.eoY365ADMk

Connecting the 60s Civil Rights Movement to #BlackLivesMatter

I Am Not Your Negro brings to life Remember This House, the unfinished manuscript of American novelist and intellectual James Baldwin. He started to write the book to reflect on his belief the history of the American Negro is the history of America sharing his personal experience of racism as considered through the lens of civil rights leaders, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Prominent American leaders all murdered within a few years of each other.  Leaders who put their lives on the line in their 20s; leaders who didn’t live beyond 40 years of age!

Baldwin wrote 30 pages and yet, as this documentary, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, shows, his insights into the history of racism in the United States is much-needed today and should act as a call to action against injustice in modern America and beyond.

White Supremacy is ugly and brutal, and an appalling indictment of humanity. Unfortunately, with the election of Donald Trump as President white supremacists and their supporters have crawled from under their rocks and become more visible and vocal than at any other time this century.

The controversy around sportspeople protesting the unlawful killing by police revealed by #blacklivesmatter and Trump’s labelling those kneeling or linking arms while the American National anthem plays, as unpatriotic, shows the profound and deeply rooted racism Baldwin confronted and challenged, is alive and well.

There is a growing black middle-class and increased wealthy African-American ‘elites,’ but despite some markers of progress, 30% of African-Americans still live in poverty. America grew from slavery, segregation, and subjugation of its citizens and still lock people of colour up in record numbers.

In fact, former Kansas State Senator Donald Betts Jr explained that although he managed to stop racial profiling in Kansas, it exists in many states and unfortunately much of the racism in the USA is also now directed at Latinos, stirred up of course, by Trump’s insistence for that Mexican wall!

Betts asked us to imagine being black in America today, driving your car and seeing the flashing lights of a police car ordering you to stop. What goes through your mind?

Have you your insurance documents, registration papers, your licence?

The police officer approaches your car, points a flashlight in your face, searches the car interior, orders to see your identification.

Do you wind the window down straight away? Do you reach for the glovebox…

US police have already killed more than 100 people this year and overwhelmingly they have been black or native Americans.

 “Never before has Baldwin’s voice been so needed, so powerful, so radical, so visionary”

Director Raoul Peck

james baldwin book covers

Baldwin returned to the United States and became involved in the Civil Rights Movement because he felt obligated to do more than writing from afar.  The three men depicted in the struggle for civil rights are very different and chose different methods to achieve their goals. Baldwin was close to them all and when he describes where he was and how he was told about each of their deaths his grief is palpable.

Several scenes from the documentary will be forever etched in my mind:

The Evil of Segregation

The 1957 footage of a howling white mob pursuing Elizabeth Eckford, as the fifteen-year-old walked into school. She was the first African American to enter a high school desegregated by court order. What courage, what stamina, what poise!

James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry were with a group of activists who had a meeting with Bobby Kennedy and begged him or his brother JFK to walk with Elizabeth or at least appoint someone of high-profile from the Federal Government to go with her that first day to show that they were committed to desegregation and also to protect the teenager.

Bobby Kennedy’s response?  He refused, didn’t think it necessary… what a terrible price black Americans pay for the spinelessness of those in authority.

The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization… and are therefore civilization’s guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men…

Police Brutality and Rodney King

The footage of a group of LA police officers viciously beating and kicking Rodney King for a traffic violation shocked the world. I was a young mother in 1992 and remember the horror and revulsion at the news bulletin. Yet the four police officers caught and identified on camera were later acquitted – no wonder LA erupted with anger and people rioted.

Baldwin – A Colonial Writer Who Explored His Heritage

I first encountered African American writer James Baldwin, at Croydon High School in the 1960s. His novels, essays and short stories a profound influence when newspapers and television screens of Melbourne were dominated by news of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the Vietnam War.

Baldwin made the political personal and explored questions of identity.

James Baldwin quote.jpg

His essays probed the psychic history of the United States along with his inner self. What language would his ancestors speak? How could he ever know when slaves were stripped of their identity? Who would want to accept the identity given to him by white society – that of worthlessness and inferiority?

When your identity is taken you are psychologically crushed and fear stifles your growth.

The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

Steve Biko

Baldwin explored spirituality (particularly organised religion and the Pentecostal church), and the complex social and psychological pressures of being black in a racist America – a country he left, to escape the inter-racial tension, homophobia and demands of his social situation.

‘I’ll tell you this, though, if you don’t feel at home at home, you never really feel at home… you don’t live where you’re happy or, for that matter, unhappy: you do your best to live where you can work.

He escaped the social tenor of the United States in 1948 by moving to Paris, using funds from a Rosenwald Foundation fellowship. This journey abroad was fundamental to Baldwin’s development as an author and self-realization, which included both an acceptance of his heritage and an admittance of his bisexuality.

“Once I found myself on the other side of the ocean, I could see where I came from very clearly, and I could see that I carried myself, which is my home, with me. You can never escape that. I am the grandson of a slave, and I am a writer. I must deal with both.”

Go Tell It On The Mountain was published 1953, the year I was born; Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, published the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, and Baldwin’s acclaimed critical essays, Notes of a Native Son first published 1955.

These books opened my eyes to conflict (racial, gender, domestic, internal), pain (physical and emotional), anguish, poverty, injustice, and intolerance — mostly an alien world to me, yet Baldwin’s storytelling influenced my lifelong commitment to social justice and to give ordinary people a voice by writing about them and encouraging them to tell their stories.   

He also made me realise it is important we tell our own stories. 

The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy… I certainly would not consider living it again… One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give…being a Negro writer… I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation…I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright…

But it is part of the business of the writer – as I see it – to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source…

James Baldwin

Born in 1924 to parents who were part of the Diaspora of the descendants of freed slaves who moved north seeking work and a better life, Baldwin chronicles the Black American experience and much of his writing is autobiographical.

‘The nationality of any literature is, at least partly, determined by the language in which it is produced.

Baldwin was the first Black writer I read as opposed to reading novels about Black Americans. (A Patch of Blue and To Kill A Mockingbird two that spring to mind.)

One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer… is that the Negro problem is written about so widely… It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly… the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly…

Focusing on the personal and interior of black life, he accepted he was part of the Western literary canon:

Be it also remembered that America was a British colony, that I was born in the English language have a British name, and speak as the descendant of the slave of a subject.”

His novels embody startling realism bringing Harlem and the black experience vividly to life.  They touch the heart with emotion while stimulating the mind with a narrative style reminiscent of Dickens, symbolism, and excoriating vision of racism in America.

Moving through time from the rural  South to the northern ghetto, starkly contrasting the attitudes of two generations of an embattled family, Go Tell It On The Mountain is an unsurpassed portrayal of human beings caught up in a dramatic struggle and of a society confronting inevitable change.

However, Baldwin did not feel that his speeches and essays were producing social change. The assassinations of three of his associates, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, shattered his remaining hopes for racial reconciliation and his disillusionment is obvious in the documentary.

Don’t Let Them Divide And Conquer

During the Q and A, former Senator Donald Betts Jr talked about his lived experience of the change Baldwin foresaw.

Born in Wichita, Kansas, his political career began in his early 20s when he was elected president of the Multicultural Student Association becoming the first African-American student body president in the University’s history.

Inspired by Barack Obama, he ran for the Kansas State House of Representatives for the Democrats leading a grassroots campaign to better serve and address the needs of his community. Elected at the age of 24, Betts steered a number of successful campaigns to decrease community incarceration rates by setting up a rehabilitation program for first-time drug offenders.

In 2004, he was sworn in as a Kansas State Senator, the youngest Senator serving in the history of Kansas. There was only one other black senator – David Haley, the nephew of the author, Alex Haley, who wrote Roots and started a worldwide interest in genealogy. he told Donald they had to stick together, refuse to be separated by seating and although only two they were powerful.

Donald now lives in Melbourne and is a frequent guest commentator on the ABC, and other local Australian media outlets.

 

outside ACMI after film.jpg
Continuing the discussion after the screening

 

Australians can learn from this documentary; it will help to understand the current crises around race in the USA and help with perspective as well as context.

We need to confront our colonial past and the unfairness of the present. The silence of the white majority regarding indigenous rights, black deaths in custody, and government policies like the Northern Territory intervention, is appalling.

Why don’t we have a treaty? Why hasn’t there been Constitutional reform?

There is irrefutable evidence of institutional and culturally embedded racism. A recent report shows 1 in 5 Australians experienced racism and the rise of One Nation and increase of support for neo-nazi patriot groups should concern us all.

Much of racism is subtle – read this report in our local paper this week:

newspaper clipping Mordialloc robbery

An “African” is mentioned but not the nationality or ethnicity of the teenagers who robbed the shop earlier. Where’s the consistency? And unless a more detailed description, where’s the relevance?

We need to raise it up, we need to fight and to shout, but we also need to bring it down, to talk and to listen in order to make change”

Donald Betts Junior

A good first step is to read Australian indigenous writers – and we have many – from the past (personal favourites  Jack Davis and Oodgeroo Noonuccal ) and also the present.
James Baldwin said: Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Listening to and reading others imperative – and then
download.jpg

A Magical Evening With Mem – A Real Gem!

Two books by Mem Fox.jpg

When an invitation from our local federal member, Mark Dreyfus QC appeared in a Facebook newsfeed, I didn’t hesitate and replied straight away. 

It was no ordinary invite from a politician. Not a party political event or publicising an election campaign, but a delightful opportunity to meet and greet and have a Q&A with Australian writer and children’s author, Mem Fox.

Wow! (Said with the expression of a groupie.)

Convenient because it was happening at Doyles Hotel, Mordialloc – and exciting – there are few families in Australia who haven’t heard of Possum Magican iconic picture storybook, which still sells today!

When I congratulated Mark on the event he gave all credit to his electorate officer,  Jacob Chacko who works in his Mordialloc office. Well done, Jacob who also did a great job as the emcee that evening.

 

Few Australian homes would not have one of Mem’s books on a shelf – she’s written over 40, and more than half are international bestsellers. 

For those wishing to write children’s books, the advice on Mem’s website, an excellent resource, but perhaps her best advice delivered that evening was for would-be writers to envisage the target audience sitting on the floor in front of them.

If the children fidget with their shoelaces, stare out the window or start being naughty your story needs editing and revising!

Remember you are writing for children today, not writing a book you read as a child, nor writing a book to be read by adults because they think that’s what children should read!

 

the crowd for Mem Fox
an eager crowd – mainly women but also some men

 

My daughters are 31 and 28 years old now and treasure many of the books from childhood, especially Mem’s. Like so many in the audience (almost 300) I cheerfully queued to have my daughters’ books signed and have a chat.

 

Mem is a writer I admire for her books, but also her views on social justice, evident in her latest picture storybook, I’m Australian Too. A book she wrote to celebrate Australia’s incredible multicultural heritage and which sold out in its first three months (March-May 2017) and has been reprinted.

I love the recommended readership for the book – for readers aged 0-95.

book-im-australian-too-cover.jpg

Ambassador for Literacy

Mem is also ‘an educationalist specialising in literacy,’ and although retired, she was Associate Professor of Literacy Studies at Flinders University, South Australia, where she taught teachers for 24 years. 

She now spends most of her time writing presentations urging parents, teachers, and others to read aloud to children aged between 0-5, and she travels the world doing it. We were lucky to have in her Isaacs on her current tour travelling Australia promoting literacy and the importance of reading.

We should also thank Melinda Shelley of 123Read2Me who is currently collecting children’s books to give to those kids who don’t have them. I think she was the one who invited Mem to visit Victoria.

If you have quality children’s books in good condition please drop them off at The Lions Club Opportunity Shop in Mordialloc Main Street and Melinda will find them a good home.

Mark and Mem.jpg

In her talk and answers to questions from Mark and the audience, Mem was entertaining (she did study drama) along with giving good advice about writing and teaching literacy.

Although born in Melbourne, Mem grew up in Africa, attended drama school in England, and returned to Australia in 1970, aged 22. Along came marriage and motherhood and attending university as a mature age student in her early thirties.

She studied children’s literature at Flinders University and during that course, she wrote the first draft of her first book: Possum Magic, as an assignment. Mem said she was inspired to write a book about Australia for Australian children because at that time books were either from the USA or UK, or written like those books.

Possum Magic was rejected nine times over five years because it was ‘too Australian’!

It went on to become (and continues to be, to this day) the best-selling children’s book in Australia, with nearly 5 million copies sold. In 2004 its 21st birthday was celebrated with parties and events in thousands of schools and other places around Australia, and a new re-designed edition was launched. The colours of the original film of the illustrations were fading because it had been reprinted so many times. They now look gorgeous again.

Mem Fox

Mem explained the inspiration for some of her other books. There was one she wrote in her head, sitting daily beside her grandson’s incubator when he was born prematurely and struggled to survive. She focused on his perfect fingers and toes and ears. She read to him too and recounting this story she urged mothers to read to children in their womb – it is never too early to read to children.

We laughed when she said she was thrilled her grandson had perfect ears because she had one ear bigger than the other and it juts out.

I loved this anecdote because I have the same affliction. When we chatted afterwards I whispered to her that I shared the imperfection regarding ears and her passion for writing and teaching, just wish I had her talent! We laughed together – and she has a raucous laugh!

Mem confessed she preferred teaching because the writing was a nightmare!

And that I could empathise with too! As do many writers.

dr seuss quote

Her latest book begged to be written because travelling around Australia, she realised the majority of people living here are welcoming and fair-minded yet it is the strident minority of people like Pauline Hanson who seem to dictate the heartless and cruel policies of successive governments against asylum seekers and refugees.

The loud, shrill voices encouraged politicians in our major political parties to act in shameful, illegal ways.  Many people are shocked and say ‘not in our name’ yet because the major parties have similar policies, the human rights abuses continue.

She let Mark Dreyfus know that she was disappointed in the federal ALP policy and he diplomatically asked another question.

The Responsibility of Writers With a Social Conscience

 I happen to have a loud voice myself—I’ve just woken up to the fact—and am now determined to use it, to drown out the others if I can, on behalf of the rest of us.

Mem Fox

 I’m Australian Too, takes Mem back to where she started: her passion for Australia. She hopes it will spark spirited discussions about ‘Australian-ness’, create an awareness of Australian immigration over the centuries, and begin to calm what she says is the appalling rising racism in this country.

There have been amazing positive responses, especially from schools and community centres:

We were so excited to read your book to our wonderfully diverse community of children at the service, who in turn were delighted to finally see and hear their culture represented so beautifully in the book, including the refugees and families seeking asylum, which are often forgotten…

images-1

Mem recounted how she had personal experience of feeling ‘the other’ when she lived in Africa (Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) where the authorities pulled her out of a local school because she was white and forced her to attend a European school, where she was bullied and laughed at for ‘speaking like an African’.

Fast forward to February this year (2017)  when she attended a conference in America a few weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and was challenged by Border Control Officers

I was interrogated as if I were some kind of prisoner, in a holding room, in full public view and hearing of everyone in the room—and was kept standing throughout, imagine because I was earning an honorarium from the conference. The Border Control patrol officer said I was ‘working’ and had come in on the wrong visa. He was wrong, as it turned out. I was right. I knew I was right. It was my 117th visit to the USA, after all.

I am ageing and white, innocent and educated, and I speak English fluently. Imagine what happened to the others in the room, including an old Iranian woman in a mauve cardigan, in her 80s, in a wheelchair. I heard and observed everything. We all did…

… the irony of my book being about welcoming immigrants …

… my story has snowballed to include the airing of stories of the many others who have suffered similarly disgraceful treatment by immigration officers makes me proud, even though my telling of the story was neither brave nor purposeful, simply an accident of timing. The focus is where it should be, but the question remains: if this can happen to me as an ageing, educated, articulate, white English speaker, what on earth happens to those who aren’t like me?

What indeed?

Writing For Children Involves Lots of Reading – Especially Other Writers!

students learning by the River Don, Inverurie, Aberdeen

Listening to Mem talk about her teaching, her understanding of children and the deep love and interaction she has with her daughter and grandson was delightful and insightful.

Write from the compost of your own life, feelings, experiences, hopes, joys, disappointments, and so on. If you do that, the reader will be able to connect with your story because it will be based on the authenticity of universal understandings.

She talked about her favourite writers and the importance of learning the craft of writing by appreciating the talent of other writers.

Currently, she was reading Elizabeth Harrower’s novels reprinted by Text Publishing. “Marvellous stories, wonderful writing … check her out…’

She reads a lot of books while travelling around Australia – real books, not digital. If going overseas for a length of time then she’ll have her Kindle because it is convenient and light, but always print books are the first preference.

As an educator, she begged young mums not to put a screen in front of young children or encourage reading on an iPad. The visceral experience of reading a print book with a young child can never be replicated by swiping a screen!

images-8

All evening Mem stayed on message: read, read, read – widely and carefully – but don’t forget to support Australian writers and tell modern Australia’s stories. Read to learn as many different ways of using language as possible. (She praised Indian writers who in her opinion, wrote the most grammatically correct English today!)

Write, write, write but know your audience, if writing for children make sure you have the rhythm right, not necessarily to rhyme, but the perfect placement of syllables in a sentence or in verse.

And remember you are telling a story that children can identify with – a little boy who was born in Lebanon shouted for joy when he heard Mem mention “his” birth country in I’m Australian Too.

The free evening was billed as 6.30pm (for 7.00pm start) – 8.30pm. It was closer to 10.00pm when I walked home. I met up with several people I knew from being a school mum (primary and secondary school) and made new acquaintances standing in line waiting to talk with a sociable and chatty Mem who was more than generous with her time.

She signed books yet did not sell one, or have any to sell – this was not a marketing exercise or sales pitch, yet I’m sure she could have sold a box of books to the adoring crowd!

The vibrant atmosphere abuzz with joy, the sharing of stories of when we first read Possum Magic, what other books are favourites, and how thrilling to meet the author in person and have books rather than sport lauded as an Aussie success story.

I left Doyles clutching my signed treasures, satisfied and smiling and laughed aloud because someone had added sunglasses to the horse statue out the front decorated for the up and coming Spring Carnival…

horse outside Doyles

I wonder what stories he/she can tell.

 

Seeking Inner Peace in Outer Mongolia

cairns 2017.jpeg

I freely admit to not being in harmony with my spirit for a long time.

I find Maya Angelou inspiring but whether experiencing delayed and complicated grief or just burn-out, a growing melancholy is difficult to shake off and so I am an expert in masking how I feel. Last year, the pretence life was okay became harder to mask.

I felt broken; fatigued and shattered.

How to fix broken me a difficult conundrum, but not new.

All my life I’ve been accused of over-thinking, being too sensitive, too serious, caring too much. Even primary school teachers wrote “highly strung” in reports when personality assessments sat beside grades.

Weary, disillusioned and disappointed in myself I wondered is it just coming to terms with ageing, or is existing rather than living going to be the norm?

Were the fast approaching ‘twilight years’ affecting me as they did my father who often recited the cynic’s song:

Twas always thus since childhood’s hour, I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay, I never loved a bird nor flower, than the darned thing died or flew away!”

The Physical and Metaphysical

There were physical aspects to how broken I felt.

I visited my oncologist because I wanted to come off Tamoxifen. Her reaction to my complaints about joint pain, rashes, and palpitations, “it’s not just cancer, you’ve never got over losing John…” and while writing a script for anti-depressants,  “I’ll give you these but I know you probably won’t take them…”

She was right about the pills – I didn’t fill the prescription, particularly after researching the possible side effects, mirroring some of the symptoms, which motivated me to make the appointment!

Symptoms I believed from Tamoxifen, the drug keeping my breast cancer under control.

She was also right about my grief for husband John, who I loved passionately and miss every day, but conflating that with the visceral effects of Tamoxifen didn’t help my anxiety.

When I left the specialist’s rooms that day, instead of catching the bus, I walked for an hour, my mind in overdrive and future uncertain.

Decisions to make.

To ignore the prescription for anti-depressants and also come off Tamoxifen. (And when the most worrying physical symptoms disappeared, I was vindicated!)

But what to do about the cloud of depression shadowing me most of my life and now threatening thunderstorm proportions?

Throwing myself into work whether paid or volunteer often an effective distraction. I’ve always been a great believer in focusing and helping others as a way of minimising personal problems.

It sometimes works, but deep down distraction is the right word. Also, it’s a solution that’s often temporary.

Peter Sarstedt in his hit song of the ’60s sang:

But where do you go to my lovely
When you’re alone in your bed
Tell me the thoughts that surround you
I want to look inside your head

No one would want to look inside my head – not even me! Where is the off button?!

The 24hour news cycle and social media with its emphasis on tragedies take a toll on heart and soul too. There are always external factors as well as internal factors feeding melancholia and as a person interested in politics and social justice I know the constant barrage has made it worse.

Going Travelling instead of Going to Pieces

Active solution?

By planning a holiday to places on my bucket list, I hoped travelling and a rest from the everyday would give time to think and heal.

I sent an email to Flower Travel, Trans Siberian journey specialists, plus emails to friends and relatives overseas in the UK, a place not visited in 20 years. I decided to travel where I’d never been and tour Orkney and Shetland.

“The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.”

Lee Iacocca

I plundered superannuation and took a term off from teaching…

As a solo traveller, there would be plenty of time for soul-searching, especially visiting Mongolia and Siberia, places as different from my lifestyle as the proverbial ‘chalk and cheese’!

Day Two In Mongolia

I’m scheduled to stay in a traditional ger at Buuviet Ger Camp, Terelj National Park, 65 kilometres northeast of Ulaanbaatar.

The ideal opportunity, at the beginning of my travels, to start that soul searching and a walk at dusk provides time to be quiet and still.

dusk in ger camp - poem.jpg
Dusk in the Ger Camp

“The National Park Gorkhi-Terelj includes the southern Khentil mountain range. Terelj is one of the protected areas most frequently visited. It offers naturally beautiful scenery, interesting rock formations and is covered by forests, wetlands and alpine tundra…”

entrance to campsign to camp

The Buuviet Ger Camp is open all year round and the information listed facilities to include:  220 V electricity, deep well artesian water, 70 gers with guest beds for overnight stay, 16-bed winter houses, ger restaurant with seating for 60 and information ger with Mongolian national games, modern bar in a ger, souvenir shop, fully equipped restrooms (summer only) and an outside BBQ and bar – not the isolated wilderness some may think!

However, I’m not the first and won’t be the last traveller to discover a discrepancy in what is advertised and reality, but I didn’t mind. In fact, the experience probably more authentic because of it. I wasn’t looking for “Glamping” as one travel site described: 

Go glamping

Sleeping in a rough-and-ready Mongolian ger is a quintessential grassland experience, but a growing number of tour operators are establishing sustainable, nomad-run ger camps that target the posh adventurer with innovative luxuries. Nomadic Journeys operates ger camps at pristine wilderness sites that feature heated eco-showers, hand-painted beds with thick yak’s wool blankets, and even a sauna ger. For the truly adventurous, they’ll open up an airstrip and fly people into the great Mongolian void – 365 degrees of pristine emptiness, and it’s all yours.

The spacious and comfortable ger was cosy and I eventually settled to sleep… although that was a long time coming…

Staring at the shadows from the starlight shining through the roof, I relived the minutiae of the day, tortured myself with past imperfect scenarios, tried to imagine perfect scenarios…

… the wee hours never easy for what my mother called ‘an overactive brain‘. Nighttime rarely a relief from the busyness of the day.

The silence in the ger “deafening’! There are none of the sounds I’m used to – machinery, cars, trains, footsteps on pavements, crickets, pigeons cooing, sirens, dogs barking….

At times the wind whistles through the roof but I could be the only person on earth although the faint buzz of security cameras and an outside light just discernible. Once I heard distant barking – dogs warning of wolves?

But there was no insect noises or hum of an electricity generator. The ger cocoon the perfect place for ‘endless musings and ramblings, recriminations and replayed conversations.’

The writing ‘mojo’ I hoped to rekindle struggled to appear, and energy absent, but regrets, remorse, resentment, recriminations, fears, fantasies, grief and even giggles took their turn before I gradually dropped off to sleep!

When we arrived at the camp, snow still lay on the ground. The weather of the last few days just beginning to allow for maintenance and preparation for the spring and summer tourist season.

Being the only guest, I understood why the electricity (stored in batteries) was not switched on, and the ‘fully equipped restrooms” still shrouded and protected from winter.

It was pleasing to see signs explaining efforts to marry environmental awareness with tourism.

A love of travel motivates me, but I readily admit it’s a privilege and carry first world guilt about my environmental footprint.

Cultivating an attitude of neutrality, I consider most people to have good intentions, are not out to be bad or destructive.  The majority are kind and helpful and so I do my best to be trusting, suppress suspicion and hesitation, and extend friendship.

There are myriad cultural and ethnic stereotypes promoted in movies, comedy routines, novels, and plays. Lazy writers thrive on stereotypes and cliches and the success of soap operas and pulp fiction show there is a market. But I hope to absorb and capture the vibrant and fascinating Mongolia that has stunned me, albeit with only two days of experience.

I prefer to take people as I find them and form opinions based on personal experience and observation.

A large sign explained Buuviet Camp’s mission to be an “eco-camp”:

Idopt a tree

Buuveit camp of Tsolmon Travel LLC was nominated and certified as the first “Eco Camp” today we are working to bring you close to nature by developing beautiful garden at our camp.

Goal:

  • save and preserve the endangered species of plants, trees and shrubbery
  • increase the number by replanting
  • provide botanical education

Our garden is dedicated to the collection, cultivation and display of wide range of plants from Gorkhi Terelj National park and Khan Khentii Protected Area.

Thousand Trees Every YEAR
Please join our effort to give back to the nature by planting trees and flowers any help would be appreciated
For more info please ask the camp manager.

I saw the area mapped out for a vegetable and fruit garden, still empty of growth because of winter.  However, Jemina, my host excited at seeing a tiny shoot of green and bent down to examine it.  New growth means his horses and cattle will have more feed. 

Traditionally, Mongolian nomads raise five species of livestock known as the five muzzles or snouts: horses, cows or yaks, sheep, goats, and camels. Reindeer are raised by the Tsaatan people who live in the northwest areas around the lake Khovsgol bordering Russian Siberia. 

A life of wrestling with the vagaries of the seasons evident on Jemina’s face, skin, and wiry body. This vast almost limitless space, a tough place in winter.

first sign pf spring

I saw living proof that Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries on earth when standing in the centre of camp:

  • no sight or sound of another person,
  • a panorama of unfolding pastures, dusty paddocks,
  • and hilly peaks draped with snow.

A wonderful gift to experience, I’m in awe at this wilderness and appreciate the lifestyle enjoyed in Mordialloc.

Ada had been worried and apologetic about some facilities being closed. But why would I mind using the squat toilet on the edge of the site, or top and tailing at the wash basin rigged to be fed by a bucket of water?

I thought of an old Monty Python skit ( Four Yorkshiremen) – these facilities luxury indeed compared to how some people have to live, without shelter, clean water or decent food!

Because of the nomadic lifestyle and the climate, Mongolians have always played a variety of games and are skilful horse riders.  I saw where outdoor games could be played but had to make do reading about the cultural heritage developed over many centuries to suit nomadic life.

Likewise, the restaurant and other communal buildings, BBQ and bar remained closed for my one night, but I could imagine the delight of tourists in peak season.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After a wander around and peeking in windows, I’m sure would-be guests during peak tourist season could consider it ‘glamping’!

Looking at my notebook, I read “has it only been a day since I flew into Mongolia?”

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.”

Carl Sagan

An Awakening of the Land – and Me…
Mairi Neil

From the plane, I spy brown, dry earth
and undulating hills
peaks dotted with snow
the iced mountains and streaked steppes
like shattered shards of glass
nomadic houses – gers
could be iced buns or polka dots
instead of circles of civilisation
and isolation

The plane manoeuvres around mountains
and patchwork dark green shadows
forest in a land famous for no trees
Thick cloud envelops
accompanied by an ominous grunt…
the landing gear drops
we hover over mountains
panda seat display announces
two degrees on the ground

river tributaries appear
flowing free
or perhaps just melting snow
as isolated gers multiply
blend to suburbs of Ulaanbaatar…

A long straight highway glimpsed
high-rise buildings glint in sunlight
seat upright, seat belt fastened
alert and nervous
I anticipate the adventure ahead…

 

me with hosts at ger camp
Jemina and daughter Aruna run the Buuviet Ger Camp

Notes By Candlelight…1

Tonight I’m in a ger – the only guest in the village because winter is not quite over. Aruna and her father Jemina run the place. Although only 22 years old, Aruna is extremely competent. She had to step up when her mother died 6 years ago. Her father is 59. An older brother and sister have moved away with their own families.

Aruna told me she has a pony, also books and television as relaxation and entertainment. She writes in her journal. Like young people everywhere she has a mobile phone and loves the Internet.

Our conversations stilted and difficult because of the language barrier. How I wished we could communicate better – I’d love to know what she reads and writes… and of her dreams for the future.

I can imagine how busy it will be in the summer – a lot of work for a young woman. I feel guilty at a fleeting moment of regret that the new washing and toilet facilities are not operational. No luxury hotel comforts for me. Not even electricity in the ger because it’s not worth connecting the battery for just one guest.

On the plus side, I’m experiencing a more traditional lifestyle as I read by candlelight, use the squat toilet, and sponge myself down at the tiny sink with water from a bucket!

I told Heidi at Flower Travel I wasn’t “precious” so in modern day vernacular I’m “sucking it up”!

When we migrated to Australia in 1962, the house we rented for four years had no septic tank or sewer. We trekked down to the bottom of the backyard day or night and used the ridiculously named “dry toilet” or dunny in Aussie vernacular. (My father and brothers often peeing in the bushes or ‘by the lemon tree’!)

The pan emptied each week by the “night man,” who actually came during the day. And what a grump he was too, but with such a “shit” job, no wonder!

My Aussie Childhood
Mairi Neil

I grew up at Croydon
when the bush was thick around,
milk and bread delivered
to a tuneful clip-clop sound

kookaburras laughed and swooped
to steal our pet cat’s food
it wasn’t Snappy Tom, of course
but ‘roo meat, raw and good.

Streets were mainly dirt tracks,
collection of potholes and clay,
most people walked or cycled
and strangers said, ‘G’day!’

Our weatherboard house peeled
paint – the tin roof leaked too,
verandahs sagged under honeysuckle,
rooms added as the family grew.

Mosquito nets caused claustrophobia,
possums peered down chimneys three
but the dunny banished down the back,
the most terrifying memory, for me.

Electricity only brightened inside,
so torch or candle had to suffice,
night noises from shadows in bushes,
and the smelly dunny – not nice!

The path to the toilet lined with trees
growing tall to seek the sun
but in the scary, dark cloak of night
branches became arms from which to run.

But during the day, our block was heaven
definitely a children’s Adventureland
blue tongues, geckos, tadpoles, and frogs
all shared my world so grand.

A snake was the greatest danger
or a bull ant bite on the toe,
a rule carefree wonderful time –
my rose-coloured glasses show!

Notes By Candlelight…2

More often than not it was outside squat toilets when I visited communes and factories and some tourist attractions in China in 1979 – the unforgettable smell of human waste reminiscent of the latrines we dug at girl guide camps.

That ‘farmyard’ smell triggers many memories just as staring at the flickering candle flame does!

Sipping a cup of Nerada tea I’ve brought from Australia I wonder how many others have sat in this ger?

The teabags and a tube of Vegemite brought along as emergency rations. A cup of tea does wonders and Vegemite on bread or cracker biscuits as good as a meal!

Deep breaths and I imagine the eucalypts in the garden at Mordialloc, the sweet smell of Mary Jane’s favourite incense that permeates the hall, the smoothness of Aurora’s fur as she cuddles me each night.

Will this trip invigorate me or just emphasise my aloneness – or make me lonely ?

A big drawback of solo travel – not having someone to talk over the day’s experiences – the joys, upsets… the wonder.

My first published poem in the form of a bookmark resulted from a writing workshop where the teacher lit a candle in the centre of the table and told us to pause, reflect and write…

is it just tiredness or feeling overwhelmed that is blocking inspiration tonight?

There were several hours to walk and explore the camp and beyond. I discovered a prayer site of shaman ritual. Shamanism deeply rooted in nomadic Mongolia and lives happily with Buddhism. You often see the circles and cairns where rituals have taken or will take place and memorial stupas.

People ask to be healed, for good crops or to do well in an exam or job interview – many reasons to thank the gods – and ask for guidance from ancestors.

Buddhism and Shamanism coexist in Mongolia and are often interconnected. 

Stalin’s purges led to religious orders being decimated. At the time 25% of the male population were Buddhist priests so you can see why he considered them a threat and you can also understand why people clung to shamanism. 

In the solitude, I felt relaxed, daylight drifted away as a veil of serenity fell.  I discovered a spiritual sanctuary amidst ancient stones. I could be sitting in an empty church – sitting quietly in contemplation without sermons or fuss.

The rocks materialising into shapes –  eyes, faces, figures – as if ancient folk still live.

Three monks in their cowls with heads bent in prayer, a mother, and her child, a grandparent squatting with a child leaning on his shoulder; animals too – crouching, lying, poised and cowed.

Who comes here? Is the discarded bottle Jemina’s? Is this where he comes to grieve? Or do people gather for spiritual salvation? 

Secret cavities leading to where? Did Mankind begin here? Do ancient souls still hover?

I see brown open landscape, miles of emptiness
I hear the cry of a crow – a kite circles
I smell aromatic herbs and woodsmoke
I taste the tang of unfamiliar meat sauces from dinner
I touch textured rock scarred by time and weather

I imagine the endless universe… the circle of life

ger camp from hill.jpg

There are only two faces to existence – birth and death –
and life survives them both, just so sunrise and sunset
are not essentially different:
it all depends on whether one is facing east or west.

Joy Mills, Release into Light

Nature called…

The toilet was far enough away to be disconcerting in the dark even although I had a torch.

There were holes and uneven ground caused by the marmots coming out of hibernation and despite knowing I was the only one booked into the camp, a walk across open land amongst shadows and the silhouettes of buildings, conjured the fearful (although unfounded) sensation that people were watching, perhaps even wishing me harm! 

Imagination a curse at times and never more so in a strange place in the dark.

No wonder I took Ada’s suggestion and snuck behind the tent and peed – it was about 3 or 4 am, absolutely freezing, the only sound my stream of urine scalding and steaming tufts of dead grass and melting thick frost.

Of course, I did have a middle-class moment – what if Jemina was up and about? But that was fleeting and made me smile at my own ridiculous thoughts.

What about ticks?

Ada told me a story about her friend being bitten on the head and contracting Lyme Disease. It was tick season and according to Ada, they love the wind and your hair, but will also go up your leg.  I dutifully wore hat, scarf, and boots when outside.

Fear made me check the bedclothes and the wheels of my luggage – just in case!  When a fly got through the door with me, I watched where it flew as if an enemy ready to attack. What a relief to see it leave via the circular gap in the roof dome. 

No windows in the ger but starlight, moonlight, sunlight, first light, all through the hole in the roof for the chimney.

And what about wolves? The wolf pelt in the corner of the office a stark reminder they exist.

wolf pelt

Jemina crept into the ger at midnight trying not to wake me, his torch flickering as he fed the fire with coal. He must have watched for smoke or lack of – and his timing spot on. (Ada had warned me Jemina would need to stoke the fire when we had an explanatory tour of the place before she returned to the city.)

This is bizarre, I thought as I watched his silhouette from the comfort of the bed. What will the girls think when I tell them I agreed that a man who couldn’t communicate with me, could come into my unlocked bedroom in the middle of the night, albeit to stoke the fire. (Another middle-class, western moment?)

The torchlight bright and blinding and Jemina’s face masked with a scarf against the bitter cold as he concentrated on his duties. Hunkering in front of the fire, fiddling with fuel to encourage flames, poking and rearranging with expertise. The wood stirred, flared and crackled to life.

There’s a talent to lighting a fire and heating a stove. Mum had it. So did Dad, although no surprise there because he was a fireman and later steam train driver. Not much Dad didn’t know about fires. Maybe he taught Mum, but since she was brought up on a farm in Northern Ireland where creating heat for cooking an important element in the skillset for country living, perhaps their expertise mutual.

In the modern world, push-button electric, gas or oil heaters ensure generations have no idea how to make or regulate a wood or coal fire.

  • Before John and I renovated our home in Mordialloc, the only hot water came from a wood-burning Raeburn stove. Every weekend John sat for hours in the shed chopping enough kindling for me to use during the week. When Anne came along, it was easier to boil kettles for her baby baths. I recall the joy of instant hot water when a gas hot water service installed.
  • I  remember my parents spreading a newspaper over the fireplace in Scotland to block out air (except for what came down the chimney or ‘lum’ as we called it) until kindling caught. I can see and smell sandalwood tapers used to light the fire – a present from a childless aunt who could afford to travel to exotic places.
  • Images of the coal man surface – heaving and emptying a large hessian bag full of coal into a bunker next to the kitchen. The smell of lanolin, the pink barrier cream Mum massaged into her hands for protection before she handled the coal, and set the fire.

As I skipped down memory lane, Jemina gave the fire his complete attention, but when he realised I was awake, he mimed that he’d return at 2.00am.

Earlier in the evening, the inside of the ger became unpleasantly hot – the coal and wood heater did too good a job in the well-insulated, enclosed space so I mimed to Jemina not to bother returning; I’d be warm enough.

He nodded, and before leaving placed a bucket near my bed.  I assumed it was to pee in if needed.

Jemina crab-walked to the door and braved the cold. I hoped, he understood I didn’t want to be disturbed at 2.00 am. The door of the ger tiny, and crouching definitely the best way to get in and out or earn a bump on the head like me when I forgot to duck coming back in after my peeing expedition!

The fire nearly out so I rekindled the flames and added more wood. I wonder if Jemina is watching for smoke from his ger…

A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia.

Traditional gers consist of an expanding wooden circular frame carrying a felt cover. The felt is made from the wool of sheep, goat or yak and the timber, to make the external structure, is obtained by trade because of the absence of suitable trees on the steppes.

Gers traditionally did not have solid doors. These fitted as camps have grown and the people don’t move as often. Traditional doors were heavy carpets or appliquéd quilts.

ger door

A Visit With A Nomadic Family

Earlier in the day, there was a quick stop with a traditional nomadic family: Mum, her son, and daughter-in-law, plus two kids of 6 and 7. A brother was visiting with his two children and another relative and her children. 

The place packed. Everyone, apart from our hostess, sitting along one side of the room while Ada, Bemba and myself, sit on the other.

A washing machine is churning because it is Sunday, the day they wash their clothes. In between entertaining us, the mother hassles the children for dirty clothes – well I assume that’s what she is saying as they search under chairs and behind boxes and produce items of clothing. The domestic tasks of parenting and managing a household universal – no translation needed!

It’s ingenious the way the ger is built, to be collapsed and packed up at least four times a year. Sometimes they only move 20-25 kilometres, other times 50 – 100 kilometres, depending on where the family’s cattle and horses graze.

This family has horses and display medals they’ve won at Naadam, the great summer festival in July.

They are Buddhist and a shrine sits next to a giant flat-screen TV, the children and some adults engrossed watching Shaun The Sheep!

A traditional musical instrument with horse handle proudly displayed, although no one plays. It sits beside a traditional saddle and ancient costume of hat and whip. They are important symbols to show pride in Mongolian culture and heritage and have been passed down through the family.

musical instrument horse handle

The various ‘sides’ of the ger are designated: woman’s area – kitchen gear (what a surprise!), a symbolic or ornamental area, sleeping area, bathing and washing area.

Gers may look the same from the outside but like our homes are different inside – this one elaborate and heavily furnished. Bright carpets insulate the walls as well as woven hangings.

As an honoured guest, I’m given milky tea swirled in a large steel basin. Milk drained – I have no idea if it was from a horse, yak, cow, goat or sheep. They use whatever is available and make milk, cream, butter, cheese, and yoghurt.

 sweet tea in ger

I ate little round shaped bites like doughnuts, the other plate is dried yoghurt, tasty but so hard you need strong teeth. A sweet/salty butter treat. Mixing salt and sugar common here. The children suck on slices of dried butter as if icy poles.

The tea an acquired taste – sweet – and leaving an aftertaste. Since teenage, I’ve preferred unsweetened black tea and because Ada knew what to expect she asked the hostess to pour only half a cup for me. 

Not wanting to offend, I drink the tea and taste everything offered. Taking food with an acquired taste, not something I cheerfully volunteer for. I’m not an adventurous eater and rarely eat out, rather I eat to live, not live to eat and never watch cooking shows currently popular on television.

There were plenty of smiles and friendly looks and my visit is an income stream for the family, especially in winter when there are not a lot of alternatives.

When they settle in an area like the National Park there is a government school closer to town and the children board there. When I visited, it was the week of school holidays a time when lots of families visit each other. (Not that different from us really.)

To the Mongols, the family unit is everything.

Having to communicate through Ada limiting and because it was a special and busy family day, I felt like an intruder and didn’t want to subject our hostess with twenty questions.

The children too interested in the television to care about visitors, but one woman (family, neighbour?) never took her eyes off me for the half hour or so of our visit. Her intense stare disconcerting and when we left, I could hear daughter, Mary Jane’s voice, “Well, that was awkward!

On reflection, despite the generous hospitality, it was indeed! Perhaps a group visiting makes the dynamics different or maybe I just wasn’t prepared for all the distractions under one roof – this is where having a separate room for guests may have advantages.

Getting to know someone and being invited to their home different to this organised visit. I remember experiencing the same embarrassed reaction after a visit to a commune in China. It just seemed a discourteous intrusion – maybe if it had been a longer visit, more relaxed and we could communicate better I wouldn’t feel so bad.

However, in the morning, all negative feelings disappeared as I lay in bed trying to identify sounds –

Dawn

‘Peeho, peeho’ the call of a bird?
Persistent and guttural like a pigeon but not ‘coo coo’
Silence after 30 seconds.
A soft whish, swish – flapping?
A peek outside –
an eagle or kite swooping, catching breakfast
an unlucky marmot fails to escape
a magical Mongolian moment I won’t forget!

Despite a disturbed night and strange bed, I feel relaxed… a step towards serenity and inner peace?